Adam Blatner, M.D.

Revised and re-Posted, November 23, 2007
Abstract: A new social role is emerging, that of "urban shaman," or "ritualist," -- i.e., someone who organizes rituals for various occasions. Some drama therapists and psychodramatists might also want to consider assuming this role. Some specific techniques are described, understanding, of course, that they serve only as general guidelines, requiring creative adaptation to the uniqueness of each situation.

In the last few decades, the idea has emerged not only of making many traditional ceremonies more relevant and involving, but also of creating "new" rituals for many occasions generally overlooked, as noted in a number of books mentioned in the references at the end of this paper. It occurred to me that psychodramatists and drama therapists could also use the principles they've acquired in their work to take on this new social role as a facilitator of celebrations and rituals of all kinds truly a "master of ceremonies" (to be abbreviated as 'MC'). Psychodramatists (this term, reflecting my own background, should also be viewed as including drama therapists) develop skills such as awareness of group dynamics, development of the MC's own spontaneity, and interest in heightening the sense of personal meaning for the participants.

Moreno's ideal of "sociatry" implies also the idea of helping people to use psychodramatic methods in everyday life (Blatner, 1985a). An extension of this would thus be the application of Morenian principles in bringing more creativity and inclusiveness to weddings, funerals, and other ceremonies (Blatner, 1985). The MC as I would envision it is more than merely a toastmaster or an experienced public speaker. Part of the role is that of helping to design the ritual, keeping in mind the needs for involvement of as many key people as possible, and the hunger for feelings of deeper meanings. These issues would require some interviewing of the key participants, almost like a psychotherapist, and a drawing out of the significance of various themes and symbols.

As it presently stands, in our fragmented culture, people who attend weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage frequently find themselves feeling deeply dissatisfied, as if the ceremony had been imposed by the officiant and didn't really speak to the uniqueness of the people involved or the individuality or peculiarities of those supporting and attending the process. Officiants, often members of the clergy, seem bound to the cultural conserves of books, using formulas that apply only in the most general ways, like books you can buy about "letter-writing for all occasions."

In contrast, the MC, in planning a wedding or some other ritual, could meet in advance with the key participants and help them as a ritual designer, bringing together a sense of drama, the potentials of surplus reality, a sensitivity to sociometry and group dynamics, and similar skills to formulate a ceremony that would be most meaningful to the key players and optimally inclusive of the feelings of most of those attending.

In this time of cultural transition, when many of the older generation still cling to traditional forms, creativity is required to balance respect for this need for structure and another need for a feeling of relevance and maximal inclusiveness. One idea is to conduct a kind of preliminary sociodrama, an experimental group process with a number of the key players, talking about the issues involved, brainstorming and improvising, keeping certain elements, letting go of others that are less successful, overly distracting, or too easily misunderstood. This is an extension of an early rehearsal session in a dramatic production in which staging and characterization are still being worked out.

Creating Celebrations

Celebrations refer to those many role transitions in our lives that generally evoke the validation of our social networks: birthdays, weddings, confirmations, anniversaries, graduations, and so forth. Serious issues may be included, because the goal is not so much frivolity as the experiencing of the transition more meaningfully. Thus, welcoming a newborn infant at a christening or saying goodbye to a deceased relative at a funeral are kinds of celebrations in this larger sense.

"To celebrate is to contemplate the singularity of the moment and to enhance the singularity of the self. What was shall not be again. The man of our time is losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating, he seeks to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state--it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or spectacle. Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one's actions."            --Abraham Joshua Heschel

A number of principles derived from the field of drama can be applied to helping the many special events of our lives to be more involving and meaningful. Techniques that dramatize an event render it more vivid and "bigger than life." When it is done as a collective activity, those occasions attain a degree of social communion, because the participants share unconscious as well as conscious mythic images and aspirations.

The use of dramatic methods involves our capacity for using metaphor to evoke emotions, and metaphor in turn draws on the potentials of aesthetics and emotional sensitivity that reflect the functioning of the right side of the brain. These are harmonized with our intellectual belief systems, and the resulting experience thereby is more holistic. The use of improvisational approaches adds the vitalizing experience of spontaneity and creativity, which for the participant puts the stamp of individuality upon these collective activities (Blatner, 2000).

In considering the "art" of making the various celebrations of your life more meaningful and enjoyable, remember that you become the producer, choreographer, and set-designer of those events. Those activities came naturally to you when you were a child, for when you were at play in those early years, you un-self-consciously embodied those roles, as well as functioning as an off-the-cuff playwright, director, sound-effects technician, and musician. Those dimensions continue to be at your disposal as you begin to co-create the kinds of ceremonies and celebrations you want.

Making Occasions More Vivid

To warm up, remember the various ceremonies that you have encountered. Think about some of the weddings, graduations, or memorial services that you have attended, and you might find several elements that you would change if you could have been the master of those ceremonies. What could have involved the major participants and the guests more fully? As you muse on those images, the following general principles can be helpful in planning future events:

Shift the pacing. Build in times for quiet and meditative experiences, and other times when there are opportunities for vigorous activity and excitement. These can be influenced by the choice of certain kinds of songs or music. For example, in the funerals of the black community in New Orleans, there was a time when hired bands played dirges on the way to the cemetery and exciting jazz spirituals on the way back.

Similarly, let there be times for informal interactions as well as more formal activities. A certain amount of structure makes people more comfortable, but not too much, or it seems artificial. During the informal periods, make it easy to move about freely so that participants can make contact with others. You can shift the pace also by mixing activities that are collective in nature with other activities that involve only one or a few individuals, the rest of the group becoming the audience. Activities in which participants do something alone or in pairs also helps create some
personal involvement. The collective activities increase the sense of camaraderie and group cohesion, while the individual activities allow for personal modifications of the experience.

Validate the Participants. It's also nice in this regard to set things up so that everyone in the group can have an opportunity to be seen and heard by the others, so that their presence is validated. Thus, explicitly acknowledge if people helped with preparations, made a special gift, or came a long distance in order to attend. Indeed, some celebrations become more meaningful by utilizing this theme of participation. For example, you could put on the invitation to a special event a request that those who attend bring something to share-- a poem, dance, story, relevant thought, a "toast," a song, or some food. Imaginative gifts sometimes add to the occasion, but more often the ordinary kind of gift-giving distracts from making the event a true celebration.

Cultivate Receptivity. Help the participants in a celebration to savor the experience by orchestrating the variables of time, space, and ambience. Allow the pacing of the event to be leisurely and the lighting or setting to be such that the sensations can have time to register in consciousness as deeply as possible. Consider the over-all experience of the ideal picnic or the most romantic or elegant dinner party. Although there should be very relaxed times, a period of vigorous, excited, co-operative preparation often helps the later quiet moments to happen with more of a sense of contrast.

In a way, all engrossing activities and celebrations involve a certain amount of mild group hypnosis. Use this process on purpose by structuring the elements of the occasion so that the participants begin to focus their attention on the deeper meanings for themselves and for the others. For example, having the group stand in a circle holding hands helps to promote an awareness that everyone is together in that present moment, and together they all are especially aware of whatever is at the center of the circle--the set table, the couple who are getting married, or whatever. Use music, singing, or even dancing or moving to a simple step to enhance this unification of attention.

Use Invocations. The wording you use for parts of the ceremony may be thought out ahead of time, and designed to maximize everyone's feeling alert and receptive to the emotional significance of the event. An invocation mixes the principles of hypnosis and drama. The pacing of speech, tone of voice, and choice of words are such that they will effectively evoke the images, memories, and ideas that are most appropriate for the experience. People's inner lives tend to create elaborations and connections under such conditions, and this increases their sense of being personally involved.

The master of ceremonies or participants may be called on to make a speech at certain points in the course of events. Using principles of invocation, what they say could be planned so that it creates a frame of reference for appreciating the symbolism of the ensuing activities. For example, a couple at a wedding might plan to include their special fondness for candle-light and wine in their ceremony. Perhaps one might light some candles and announce, "Thus do we kindle the light in our hearts, and may the light illuminate our minds so that our mutual understanding grows." Later on, continuing in the spirit of ritual forms of speech, they may toast each other, saying, "May this champagne remind us of the intoxication of love, hope, and good fellowship."

Another useful guideline is to allow the wording of invocations to highlight the uniqueness of the event. For example, "This is the third Christmas we've shared with little Kim, who was brought into our family, to be a part of us." At family reunions, acknowledge the honored guests: "It's especially nice to have Bob's parent here, and to have the grandchildren get to know them better." (Such forms of explicit speaking also help the children present to experience the event more vividly.) Most occasions have some features that can be emphasized in this fashion.

Make Affirmations. An extension of the principle of making invocations is the idea of having participants say things directly. If you express things out loud, your feelings tend to be more vividly fixed in your memory. Some specific themes include:
  -- Express appreciation and thanksgiving to God, to the group, to individuals, for whatever you can think of;
  -- Contemplate beauty of the natural surroundings, the radiant faces of the participants, the works of art, etc.;
  -- Call attention to the significance of any symbols or symbolic actions. Note, for example, that a piece of clothing or a special object might have belonged to an ancestor.  Mention that the music that was chosen was a favorite piece of one of the people who are present (or present only in spirit).
  -- Acknowledge individual contributions, as mentioned before.
  -- Sing songs with a message.
  -- Make affirmations of positive expectations and intentions, phrasing the words almost like a prayer, because this helps to emphasize the emotional and spiritual significance. For  example, near the closing of a celebration, one might say, "May we remember the caring and warmth we share now in future times when we may feel separate; and may we remember that we can participate again and be welcomed again, just as we are together now."
  -- Add actions to the words, such as in lifting the ritual objects, or having someone dance or portray something being described.
  -- Consider including the acknowledgment of negative feelings or temptations that might exist. "It was not easy to come here in this weather." "Our joy is tempered by the sadness of having lost Jill's mother a month ago; we wish she could be here for this." It's helpful to mention explicitly the possible fears, weaknesses, confusions, or distractions  associated with an event. Clarifying what is unspoken eases the awkwardness of having to avoid the obvious.   The sense of reconciliation at a celebration becomes more  real when we can admit that the whole of our natures--the  negative as well as positive qualities--are present. There is at-one-ment in atonement, and  affirming the willingness to bring openness and caring to the experience helps strengthen the fragility of human relationships.
  -- And finally, sprinkle in phrases that refer to the  process of opening oneself to love, faith, and responsibility whenever possible. These values draw out the best from the consciousness of a group.

Such affirmations can be woven into your orchestration of a celebration or ceremony. They can evoke the feelings that need to be experienced more vividly, and these are feelings that tend to bring healing to everyone present.

Include Playfulness. Build in to your plans some opportunities for spontaneity, also. This includes the theme of humor. Things can get too "heavy" is people are led to take themselves too seriously (Blatner & Blatner, 1997). This phenomenon is recognized and dealt with in many cultures by including some roles for people who are permitted to be silly, provocative, or irreverent. These special "clown" or "fool" roles keep a counter theme of lightness happening even during important rites of passage or religious rituals. Sometimes the master of ceremonies is granted the right to joke with the participants, while in other cultures the musicians have this privilege and responsibility. Such activities need not be disruptive to the seriousness or purposes of most celebrations.

Other Forms of Celebration

The key point is that you begin to think in terms of creating celebrations, designing them with elements of improvisation and elements of drama. These may be informal experiences in a family setting or theme-oriented events for larger groups. Regarding the former, be aware that families naturally generate little traditions over time. Help that to happen with some spontaneity and some design. For example, invite your family to help plan to make the next few holidays more meaningful. Consider together how you might change some of the traditional elements, or perhaps even strengthen them. People might bring forth songs or poems that seem appropriate; drawings, no matter how simple, or decorations that reflect the spirit of preparation can also be a way of increasing involvement.  Avoid things that are unduly expensive in terms of time, effort, or money, for this tends to leave a residue of discomfort.

In an even more simplified form, bring the mindfulness of playful ritual to such activities as eating or walking together. Do some things in silence or with the eyes closed once in a while. Move slowly and experience the subtle sounds of nature and the feelings in the body.

You can create new celebrations, or add dimensions to the ones you already enjoy. For instance, many cultures have celebrations around the main changes of the seasons (Henes, 1996). If you were to create an event that corresponded to the season, you could improvise regarding what a season might mean to your circle of friends. Here are some possibilities:

Spring ceremonies reflect the new beginnings that are occurring in people's lives.

Summer events honor the fullness of everyone's talents, their forms of productivity, and the excitement of their interests. Participants are invited to prepare and bring something to a "show and tell." It's a nice way for a social network to express their individuality.

Autumn celebrations are an opportunity for friends and families to review their "harvest" of the year. It may be a time for thanksgiving, and the group members may define for themselves what they want to acknowledge. It's a time for mellowness and thoughtfulness, in the sense of musing and reflection.

Mid-winter is a good time to share fellowship. On the coldest days, there is a kind of mercy in a group abiding with each other in a spirit of friendship and festivity.

Celebration and Spontaneity

There is a curious paradox in that a lack of structure actually inhibits spontaneity. This is because when people are faced with ambiguity, they feel a bit overwhelmed by the implicit requirement that they define themselves by their actions. This is simply too much of a responsibility, and the tendency is to resort to stereotyped forms of "game-playing." This is what accounts for the varieties of one-upsmanship and the feeling of phoniness at many cocktail parties or receptions. On the other hand, if some of the activities and role-behaviors in a social setting are
prescribed, then the participants will naturally discover for themselves how they can bring personal style and self-expression to their participation. Thus, a relatively narrow range of freedom becomes an attractive channel for improvisation.

The devices of feasting, intoxication, traditional games, songs, and dances, flirtations, exchanging gifts, wearing costumes or finery, and religious ritual are to some extent ways of breaking out of the ordinary roles and preoccupations of everyday existence.  Much of our socioeconomic involvement can be boring, humdrum, and/or excessively demanding and stressful. On the other hand, playful roles allow people to find a comfortable level of involvement, because of its essentially voluntary nature.

Activities that include the element of play help the participants to transcend the security- oriented ego concerns which are associated with the complex family and occupational roles of everyday life. For example, a man in a fraternal organizational costume finds role relief in engaging in this activity. Fred Flintstone becomes the Grand Pooh-Bah or whatever is his title, and he's free to frolic in that exalted role. There is a bit of ecstasy in this, if one considers that the Latin root of the word ecstasy means to stand outside of oneself. One shifts away from the ordinary ego perspective, and such playful activities can reduce the tendency of people to become overly identified with their own egos.

In summary, think of applying the principles mentioned here to the process of creating more exciting celebrations and ceremonies. The many rites of passage in our culture can thus be helped to become more meaningful and vitalizing. Psychodramatists can utilize the range of their skills to apply Morenian principles in this as-yet relatively untapped and unformed field.

"In the time of your life, live--so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed. Place in matter and in flesh the least of the values, for these are the things that hold death and must pass away. In the time of your life, live--so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it." 
              --William Saroyan,   The Time of Your Life


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